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Cohasset manager’s future unclear

By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / February 12, 2012
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Cohasset’s Board of Selectmen may soon be looking for a new town manager to replace the man who’s been in the job a little more than six months.

Town Manager Michael Coughlin, whose assertive style has led to friction with some leaders in town, confirmed last week that the selectmen met in executive session for about two hours to discuss his contract, and that he then sat down with the board’s chairman and vice chairman and the town’s attorney.

Coughlin would not say specifically what happened, but offered, “This is a great distraction, and it doesn’t bode well for the financial stability of the town. I have always described myself as the coach of the team. When the future of the coach is in question, the whole team suffers.’’

The selectmen issued a statement saying they could not comment on “ongoing negotiations’’ with town employees. They have scheduled another meeting with Coughlin tomorrow, also in executive session, but Coughlin has asked that the session be an open meeting.

Coughlin, who earns $115,000, started work in August. Chosen from 80 applicants, the 53-year-old took over in a turbulent time from an interim town manager who had covered the post for about nine months.

Selectmen said then they were looking for a “take-charge’’ manager who would shake things up after an independent audit had revealed serious shortcomings in Cohasset’s financial record-keeping. Those problems led to large deficits in the Water Department and the resignations of the town manager and finance director.

But while town employees praised Coughlin for team-building and decisiveness, his style led to conflict with some of the volunteer boards in town, particularly the water commissioners.

Coughlin and Water Commission chairman Peter DeCaprio have been in a dispute over the commission’s plan for a 20-year private-public partnership to run the Water Department. The current five-year management contract expires June 30.

Coughlin questioned whether there was enough time to vet a new, more comprehensive contract before it came before the May Town Meeting. And he questioned whether DeCaprio had a potential conflict of interest since his investment firm had been financed by the company that is majority owner of Aquarion Water Co., a possible bidder on the Cohasset contract.

DeCaprio has denied any conflict and complained that Coughlin was sabotaging the contract because he wanted to control the process.

Control of the Water Department has been a recurring issue between Coughlin and the water commissioners. Coughlin points to the 2010 Town Meeting vote that gave the town manager joint financial oversight with the commissioners over the department. The commissioners say that vote is trumped by an 1886 state law giving them sole authority.

“As a fellow town official, your behavior and approach is tiresome - I am simply sick of it,’’ DeCaprio wrote in an e-mail to Coughlin last week. “You can continue to misinterpret rules, and bluster and threaten.

“I am not going to relent, because the law and the facts are on our side. But if your actions jeopardize our plans, I will personally lead the effort to have you removed from office,’’ DeCaprio wrote.

Coughlin said he was concerned the e-mail, which he showed to the Globe.

“It is perhaps not by coincidence that the Board [of Selectmen] has an executive session about my contract with the town in the aftermath of this,’’ he said.

“Do I believe these two issues are linked? I don’t know, but I think a blind man can connect the dots. Something is very wrong here.’’

DeCaprio, who was critical of Coughlin in a previous interview with the Globe, could not be reached for comment last week.

Coughlin said he has asked the state Ethics Commission for guidance on whether DeCaprio has a potential conflict of interest, and has contacted the state Inspector General’s Office with questions about the proposed Water Department contract.

Coughlin said he’s also contacted the state Department of Revenue because “I have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens and taxpayers of the town to notify [the state] if a destabilizing event happens or is imminent.’’

Coughlin, an attorney with experience in private practice and as an Army lawyer, came to Cohasset from a town administration position in Westport. He was previously town manager in Southbridge, where he was fired, and Northbridge, where he resigned under pressure.

Thomas Groux, the consultant who advised Cohasset in its town manager search, said it was an “occupational hazard’’ for town managers to lose their jobs. But he said most managers lasted more than six months.

“That would be pretty quick,’’ if Coughlin were to leave Cohasset, Groux said. “That’s too bad. He’s a talented guy. Politics are tough sometimes in a small town.’’

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.

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